As we move beyond the details of Adam Toledo’s death and learn more about his life, it’s critical to examine how systemic racism and oppression, in particular the way it lives in our schools and school systems, played a part in his death. 

Some of Adam’s former teachers told the Chicago Tribune that he was labeled a special education student early on, and for much of elementary school he was isolated in a classroom with six other students, separated from the rest of their classmates and struggling to make friends. Teachers said they saw he had a talent for art, but his school lacked the resources to offer art classes. One day he painted graffiti on a wall at the school, a teacher said, and rather than talk with him about why he did it, the adults in the school focused on painting it over.   

As we mourn the loss of 13-year-old Adam Toledo, we wonder how school and school system leaders can play a critical role in helping prevent more tragedies like this oneFrom the day he was born, Adam‘s identity as a Mexican American special education student living in a low-income urban neighborhood put him at risk of becoming a statistic. It also painted the assumptions and beliefs that we as adults had about him in our schools, assumptions that play out in our interactions and decision-makingConsider these statistics: 

  • Latinx students comprise the same proportion of special education students as white students in U.S. public schools, though there are almost two-times more white students than Latinx students. 
  • 1 in 4 Latinx/Black students with disabilities experience at least one out of school suspension, compared to 1 in 10 white boys with disabilities. 
  • Latinx students with disabilities are more likely than their white classmates with disabilities to be taught in separate classrooms, given office referrals, removed from school by a hearing officer, suspended, and expelled.  
  • Only 3.5% of Latinx students are placed in gifted and talented programs, compared to 7.5% of white students.  

For education leaders, there is a lot to unpack and reflect on here. The Leadership Academy’s Equity Leadership Dispositions offer a guide for considering the kind of school experience Latinx boys like Adam could have if leaders lived and held themselves accountable to these beliefs and skills.    

1. Reflect on personal assumptions, beliefs, and behaviors. For leaders to feel comfortable addressing issues of bias, inequity, and race, they first need to have a heightened understanding of their own identities, values, assumptions and biases (Brown, 2004; Gooden & O’Doherty, 2015). Without a firm self-examination of their own identity and role in historically inequitable structures, leaders risk reproducing inequities inside and outside their schools and systems (Jones & Vagle, 2013; Brooks, Jean-Marie, Normore & Hodgins, 2007; Rigby & Tredway, 2015).

Reflections for leading for Adam

  • What are your beliefs and biases about Latinx teenage boys? Are they smart? Worthy? Capable? 
  • How is Adam’s community of Little Village or “La Vilita — where 85% of residents are Latinx, 11% Black and 3% white and nearly three-quarter of 16 to 24-year-olds are unemployed– different or similar to where you were raised?
  • How does that influence your assumptions about Adam and his family? How does that influence your interactions with Adam and decisions about Adam? Where do you think these beliefs came from and what do you need to do to unlearn them?  

2. Publicly model a personal belief system that is grounded in equity. By modeling vulnerability and emphasizing that mistakes will be made when speaking about issues of race, leaders can help others overcome those fears and encourage them to take risks in exploring and sharing their own feelings (Sue et. al, 2009).

Reflections for leading for Adam 

  • When you talk about serving and supporting Black and brown youth, where does the story of a 13-year old Latinx boy with special needs show up? Does your articulated vision include him? What would you say so to let your community knew that Adam was part of your belief system? 
  • In what ways do you model authentic, meaningful and respectful collaboration with communities like Little Village?  

3. Act with cultural competence and responsiveness in interactions, decision-making, and practice. Leaders therefore model culturally responsive practices, including communicating high expectations for all students; designing curriculum that incorporates students’ backgrounds, languages and learning styles; and working with parents and families as valued and respected partners (Klingner et al., 2005; Smith, 2005; Gerhart, Harris, & Mixon, 2011).  

Reflections for leading for Adam

  • Consider the special education students in your school – why were they placed there? Is your placement process set-up to target particular students? Are your special education students in a learning environment that will challenge and engage them and best meet their learning needs? If not, why not, and what can you do to change that 
  • How are you personally interrupting the pattern that 1 in 4 Latinx/Black students with disabilities (vs 1 in 10 white students), experience at least one out-of-school suspension? Are you making decisions that are more asset-based and restorative or deficit-based and punitive? Who owns this problem? 

4. Purposefully build the capacity of others to identify and disrupt inequities in the school. Leaders understand that empowering staff is a key feature of creating more socially just schools (Theoharris, 2010). 

Reflections for leading for Adam: 

  • If teacher struggled to meet the needs of one of your students, how did you help or how did you get in the way 
  • If the principal struggled, how is the central office implicated? Where did you provide adequate support and where did you fail? 

5. Confront and alter institutional biases of student marginalization, deficit-based schooling, and low expectations associated with minoritized populations. Confronting these long-standing beliefs and practices requires a collaborative effort, where stakeholders engage in intentional conversations about who benefits from current policy and practice and who is being minoritized or disadvantaged (Klingner et al., 2005). 

Reflections for leading for Adam: 

  • Have you ever been in the room when a teacher or other school staff member was giving up on a young person like Adam? Did you say something? Did you confront deficit-based beliefs about him in real time—enough to get others to understand a new way of addressing the challenge of meeting his needs? 
  • Basic decisions at the school level can be life altering for a young person and his family. How are schools systemically given the leeway to separate and move out students who are struggling? How are you implicatedin that? How are you committed to confronting life altering decisions in real time for children and families like Adam? 

6. Create systems and structures to promote equity with a focus on minoritized populations. Equity work is complex, requiring fundamental structural changes and coordinated efforts. Leaders must establish clarity and agreement on a shared vision and plan of action, define clearly articulated measures of success, and build a community-wide commitment to equity and access (Rimmer, 2016). 

Reflections for leading for Adam: 

  • Latinx students are overidentified for special education in schools that have a relatively limited racial and ethnic diversity and are substantially under-identified in schools that serve predominately students of color. What are you doing, what can you do, to address these disparities at the systems-level? 


What kind of chance would Adam have had at your school or in your school system? How are you leading to make sure every student has the school experience they need and deserve?  

How will you lead for Adam? 


Nancy B. Gutiérrez, Ed.L.D.

Lead Education Officer & President

Dr. Nancy B. Gutiérrez is Lead Education Officer & President of The Leadership Academy. Nancy joined The Leadership Academy in 2014 and has served as National Leadership Designer and Facilitator, Vice President of District Leadership, and Chief Strategy Officer. She was named President & CEO in July 2018 and continues to serve as an executive leadership coach and facilitator for school systems across the country. She was a Fall 2019 Pahara-Aspen Education Fellow, and in February 2020 was named among the 100 most powerful education leaders in New York by City & State New York. Nancy is a frequent keynote speaker for local and national education organizations and has authored numerous pieces on education leadership and equity for national publications including Education Week, Kappan, The74, and Hechinger Report. Nancy began her career as a teacher and principal in her home community of East San Jose, CA, where she was the founding principal of Renaissance Academy, the highest performing middle school in the district and a California Distinguished School. Nancy also led the successful effort to turn around the district’s lowest performing middle school. She was named the UC Davis Rising Star and Association of California School Administrator’s Region 8 Middle School Principal of the Year in 2010. Prior to her tenure with The Leadership Academy, Nancy launched a program for executive leadership advancement for the New York City Department of Education that led to superintendent certification. Nancy is a graduate of the inaugural cohort of the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Doctor of Education Leadership (Ed.L.D.) program and is a graduate of the Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents (ALAS) Aspiring Superintendents Academy. She served on the national board of the Coalition of Essential Schools for more than a decade. She is an instructor at NYU and frequently teaches at the Harvard Principals’ Center institutes for School Turnaround Leaders, Urban School Leaders, and Race, Equity, Access, and Leadership. Nancy is a member of the Board of Directors at The Hunt Institute, Brightbeam, and Education Leaders of Color (EdLoC) and serves on the Latinos for Education teaching team. Find Nancy on Twitter @nancybgutierrez or LinkedIn.